Losing Faith After Losing Your Best Friend

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here’s a moving confessional from reader Doug on the biggest religious choice of his life—leaving organized religion—which in turn forced him to make a few other hard choices:

As a child and a teenager, I was kind of in and out of church. My mom is pretty religious but my father is not. But whenever I was in church, I was very involved. I went several times a week (to services or Bible studies or events), and I even taught and preached on a regular basis. I was very religious throughout college and intended to become a full-time missionary overseas. I got engaged to a very smart, very loving, and very Christian young lady.

Three months before we were to get married (and the week before my last semester’s final exams), my best friend suddenly got bacterial meningitis and died.

That was 11 years ago, but I vividly remember praying in the hospital room that God would save him. I remember thinking about how James 5:16 says, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” And I knew that I wasn’t really righteous, so I made sure to call the most righteous men I knew and asked them to pray. And I knew that Mark 11:24 says, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” I genuinely believed that God would save my best friend … but my best friend died.

And according to my beliefs at that time (and the beliefs of millions of Americans), my best friend was going to go to Hell because he was not a Christian. And so this was the major event that I’d say shook my faith.

However, I also still believed that the truth was not contingent on what I wanted to be true. It didn’t make sense to stop believing something simply because I didn’t like it anymore.

Yet there was another event that completely sealed my loss of faith. And that was about eight months after my friend died in 2004, the major tsunami hit Indonesia and immediately wiped out like 80,000 people. After that I just couldn’t believe in evangelical Christianity ever again. I couldn’t believe that God would allow 80,000 people, most of whom were not Christians (as Indonesia is actually the largest Muslim country in the world), to die at the hands of Mother Nature … only to spend eternity in Hell. There was no way I could any longer believe in that kind of God.

So, what happened? My fiancee and I went ahead and went through with the wedding (it is really hard to cancel a wedding once the invitations have all been sent out). We argued constantly about religion for two and a half years. I didn’t want to go to church anymore, but I had to go. Sometimes I wasn’t paying attention enough for her satisfaction. It hurt her knowing that the most important thing in her life, her faith, was no longer shared with me. She constantly pointed out, correctly, that I had changed—not her.

So, after two-and-a-half years, we got divorced. I did initiate it. But honestly, at that point I was struggling so much with my best friend’s death that it was in her best interest to be free of me anyway.

I did not become a missionary, so I had to go find a job in the real world helping make money for the man. And it took me many years before I really found out what I wanted to do.

It’s been 11 years since my best friend’s death and I’m still not religious (though interestingly I am trying to make God a part of my life again … but without the formal religion and believing in scriptures). I could have pretended to still believe to try to save my marriage and keep my career plan, but I can’t ever lie to myself. I enjoyed doing Christian work and I enjoyed teaching. But I’ve just had to find other avenues to use my abilities and explore my interests in life.